As a child, one of my favorite books was Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives. I read the Puffin edition which was a new English translation published in 1959. However, it had been originally published in German back in 1929, and the first English edition had followed just two years later.
I had been introduced to Puffins as an eight-year-old in the early 60′s, and have loved them ever since. When we lived in Athens my parents would let me collect the family’s small change, and when the lepta coins added up to 60 drachma, I could string them together and go out to the English bookstore to buy a Puffin book. Later, in India, I was allowed to choose several Puffins regularly from the latest catalogue, and when they arrived a few weeks later in a paper parcel, I would disappear into other worlds for weeks on end. Somehow through all our moves I managed to save all my old Puffins, and collected still more in the United States after my son was born. When I read all my old favorites to him, many of them became his as well, among them Swallows and Amazons, The Family from One End Street, The Children Who lived in a Barn, Stig of the Dump, The Railway Children (in fact, all the E. Nesbits), Friday’s Tunnel (an all-time favorite), The Silver Sword, and of course, Emil and the Detectives.
It seems to me that too many children’s writers talk down to their readers, something that Puffin authors never did (especially under the editorship of Kaye Webb, from 1961-1979). Erich Kästner dealt with subjects that might have seemed inappropriate for children, and his young readers so appreciated this. In Emil and the Detectives, Emil Tischbein is the only son of a widowed mother who works hard to support them and whom Erich adores fiercely, protectively, despite how much she fusses over him. As the novel begins, Mrs. Tischbein is preparing to send her beloved son to Berlin for a holiday to stay with his aunt, uncle, and Grandma and entrusts him with an envelope of her carefully-saved money to carry along with him. Kästner speaks directly to his young readers about why such a small amount of money means so much to Emi and his mother, and why Emil tries so hard to help his mother even though he certainly isn’t a goody-goody. Similarly, in his Lottie and Lisa (Das doppelte Lottchen in German, later made into the film The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills) he speaks frankly to his readers about divorce and how it affects children.
To me, the most terrifying scene was the one where Emil falls asleep alone in the train carriage with a strange—and ominously friendly—man and wakes up to find the precious envelope gone. Because it is unacceptable to him that he should lose his mother’s hard-earned money, he, his cousin Pony, and a gang of boys fan out into the streets of Berlin with a brilliant plan to catch the thief and recover the money, coming into contact with various shady characters along the way. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens, but Kästner is a brilliant storyteller and knows how to capture a child’s imagination.
It was only as an adult that I read about Kästner’s own life. Emil was the most popular of his novels and the only one to have escaped censorship by the Nazis. Kästner was a pacifist and opposed to the Nazis, who burned his books in 1933, labeling them “contrary to the German sprit.” Like Emil, he was very close to his mother—in fact, it is thought that she was the main reason why he didn’t leave Germany after the Nazis’ rise to power.